Debbie Wilson started making bikinis
on an Singer sewing machine over
two decades ago; today she runs
Maui's most popular swimwear store.
To finesse mid-twentieth century attitudes out of their puritan frocks took skill and hard work but it happened: Today’s scientifically engineered contraptions symbolize high stakes, high tech fashion. The bikini industry is now huge. Hawaii—home of the Pipeline, not the assembly line—is on the outskirts of the manufacturing end of things, but still lends the industry radiance. How else to explain that the candy-apple red bikini on the cover of the 2005 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue was created not by one of the 2,000 swimsuit companies vying for the honor but by one of the five women mentioned above?
Just as the halcyon days of the Waikiki showroom were waning, a freer-wheeling spirit began to infuse Island music. Casual delights like the hit Maui Girl filled the air. Debbie Wilson, who was soon to succeed as a bikini maker/free-enterprise avatar of this new era, recalls how the tune came on her car radio as she was barreling along on a Valley Isle road. She thought: “What a great name for my business.” Today, her bikini label, Maui Girl, is sold from her Pa‘ia shop, Maui Girl. The place—“Maui’s best bikini store,” according to three years of polling by island media—is a must-make stop for locals and Hollywood types, including Courtney Love, Pat Benatar and Cindy Lauper.
Under the cooling whir of hand-woven ceiling fans, Debbie welcomes me into the store. Angular and sun-tanned, with deep-set almond eyes, she is like a Modigliani painting come to life. Rows of colorful bikinis testify to her penchant for wild prints. “I never worried about people making fun of me for trying something different, and I’ve just found that people follow me when I do,” she says. She remembers the time she stitched a bathing suit from a checkered tablecloth.“I wore it to Baby Beach,” she says, referring to an in-spot hideaway on Maui. “Everyone loved it.”
Like Jacqueline, Debbie says the island vibe inspired her. When she arrived on Maui in 1969, at the side of a boyfriend she met back in her native Maryland, experimentation was in the air and experimenting is what Debbie did well in countless ways—like riding the rodeo circuit, where she won the wahine bullriding contest; and designing and building five homes. The hippiedom days also apparently tripped the floodgates of her entrepreneurial juices. Waitressing by day, she sewed by night; an eventual single mom, she raised her daughters in this setup. “I literally had one hand on the cradle and one foot on the sewing machine pedal,” she remembers.
When the 1980s transformed Pa‘ia into the windsurfing capital of the world and created a new niche for bathing suit sales, Debbie figured she'd have an edge on those mainstream swimsuit manufacturers of near-military-industrial boringness. “I can't say for sure that none of their designers actually go to the beach, but I knew I'd be able to use my experience in the ocean to meet the challenge of making a bathing suit that didn't sag and bag,” she says, adding that it’s daunting that “as a bikini designer, you are basically sending people out in public in their underwear.” Enlisting the help of local seamstress Pam Winans, who is still with Maui Girl, Debbie began using her own size eight body as a mannequin. In lieu of market research, she simply installed herself in her store where she could carefully observe the expressions on women’s faces as they emerged from the dressing room: “For at least ten years, I put time into the store, talking with customers, reading fashion magazines, coming up with new ideas. I loved it.” This is how she came to design everything from racer back tops for the long-distance swimmer to bottoms with subtle control top waist panels for those who routinely cut abs class. The contemporary woman’s interest in fitness has given longevity to bikinis, Debbie says: “The age of thirty-nine is no longer the cut-off point for wearing a revealing swimsuit in public.” For the well-endowed, she recommends under-wire tops. And for those on the other end of the spectrum ... well, she leans in with a faux stage whisper and says, “I’ve padded half this town.”